ปล่อย/Release

One day while talking about why it is that I seem to have such a hard time letting things go, a friend here told me;

พรุ่งนี้ก็ไม่แน่นอน วันนี้ก็ไม่แน่นอน”

“Tomorrow is uncertain. Today is uncertain.”

She went on to explain how her religious upbringing instilled within her the practice of letting go. It’s not that she is less affected, or more poised than I am, but rather that she is more practiced at letting go.

I think about this often in the context of my relationships here, and this experience as a whole. Despite my best efforts, I so often find myself trying to grasp things, to hold onto them and keep them.

The question isn’t, “should I hold onto this?” Rather, the question is, “can I?”

The answer I am trying over and over again to accept is, “No.”

I think a lot about my connections to the people in my life. Many days I still feel uncomfortable, anxious, seeking, and scrambling;

Are my connections strong? Can I be doing more? Do people know how important they are to me?

I try as often as I can to let go, to just accept those connections as they are. They didn’t get this way by being maintained or forced — they got this way through gentleness, openness, and vulnerability.

It feels like I am always trying to create opportunities, worrying about those connections instead of just being. That is such a huge source of anxiety for me — constantly seeking instead of finding, constantly feeling what isn’t there at the expense of what is.

I want to practice letting go and being present. If I keep this intention in my heart every day, I can practice opening myself up to all of the things that are there, instead of just the things I feel are missing. If I can stop resisting life. If I can drop the story lines.

That letting go often doesn’t feel as good as I imagine it will. Somehow the idea of release feels more exciting than the release itself. I think a big part of that is because I anticipate letting go — that I will be able to let go at that time, on that day, in that place — but when that day actually comes, I can’t do it.

No matter how diligently I try to keep the intention to practice letting go in my daily life, the desire to feel connected still aches within my chest. I seek and I reach out, and I so often forget that those connections will come as long as I am open to them, as long as I allow myself to see what is already there in each present moment, and not just what isn’t.

So much of my writing is full of metaphors. Water, stones, circles, cycles, orbits, strings, trees, and visions. Even the idea of letting go, of the open palm, is a metaphor for an emotional and entirely internal experience.

A feeble and futile attempt to quantify and clarify the human experience, to paint a picture of the inside of our hearts for others to see and therefore understand us. It’s all an attempt to explain something that was never meant to make sense in the first place. Cells given cognition by Lady Luck and Father Time, stardust with consciousness capable of contemplating itself.

Here we are pretending it all makes sense.

The world we as humans have created is so spectacularly odd. To think that any of this was intended strikes me as so incredibly arrogant, as if a mote of dust is the entire universe fabricated for our benefit.

We attempt to sift meaning out of the neutral chaos that is nature because our brains evolved to detect patterns because it was advantageous to us in some way. I suspect this is part of the reason that I see so many patterns when I look at my own life.

Maybe the only thing that keeps that pattern going is my belief that it exists. A prison of thought created to try and explain the indescribable, because being free and open to the truth that nothing is certain is too terrifying to bear. So I build comfort out of explanations willed into existence only by the belief that they are true — and they are as much as they aren’t.

A couple weeks ago I went to the local election for the Youth Council in my province. About ten minutes into being there my mind started to run along the course that has become so familiar to me during my time here — frustration, annoyance, disbelief, exasperation, and resistance.

“They should be doing this, not that. Why aren’t they doing this other thing? Oh, no, they’re doing that all wrong. What are these kids even doing here? How is this still happening?”

After letting this run its course for a while, fairly inured to the feeling at this point in my service, I remembered my intention to let go and allowed myself to look beneath the surface. I tried to feel into that initial frustration without judgement, smooth it out, and then just let it go and drop the story line that I was telling myself about it. I tried to tune myself into the present moment. I let myself slow down for a moment to ask, “What is happening here?”

“I see students who are doing something productive on a Saturday. I see adults who care about the youth in their community. I see the desire for change. I see effort and perseverance. I see people who recognize what the problems in their community are but often have no earthly idea of how to begin fixing them. I see youth daring, exposing themselves, trying new things, and making friends with other youth who believe that they can take an active part in their community, even if they are not yet sure what that means.” 

When I allowed myself to let go, the totality of the experience became available to me. It’s so easy to focus on those initial feelings of frustration, anger, or sadness, but if we are able to not grasp onto that we are left with all of the parts of that experience that make it so rich, so whole, and so human.

Inexplicable. Stardust floating through space.

W.

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Memory

We encourage ourselves to develop an open heart and an open mind to heaven, to hell, to everything. Only with this kind of equanimity can we realize that no matter what comes along, we’re always standing in the middle of a sacred space. Only with equanimity can we see that everything that comes into our circle has come to teach us what we need to know.”

-Pema Chodron

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I dragged my laptop over, flipped it open, and clicked on the folder of photos from two years ago, the time right before I left to come to Thailand. I showed her the photos of mountain vistas and placid lakes in Yosemite, the sprawl of San Francisco, of Mt. Tabor sunsets, sky-scrapers in downtown Portland with wind turbines on top of them, and the view of Hillsdale from the stairwell in The Watershed. I told her a little bit about each of them. “This is where I used to work. This is the lake my brother and I hiked 12 miles to get to. This is where my best friend lives.” 

Afterwards I asked her how she felt and she said, her voice wavering, that I have to go back to where I was. Now that place I had to go back to was real to her. The specter of our future parting coalesced into physical form within her mind, given a name and a face. A real place, with real people. Trees, mountain ranges, city lights, sunsets, cows, family, friends.

I felt hot tears roll down my face as I thought about how one day this would all be a memory. Far into my still uncertain future I will lay in bed late one night while the fan blows cool air in through the window, or sit on a bench on a sunny day reading a book, or ride my bike through a quiet park, and I will remember this part of my life.

The house behind the lime orchard. Four walls with the bathroom carved out in the corner, pink bed sheets, the whiteboard with Thai vocabulary and motivational phrases scribbled on it, the frogs outside after a rain, the shitty washing machine that keeps breaking, the oft-neglected kitchen, breakfasts of bread and peanut butter, reading on the front porch, playing ukulele on the bed in the dark, lonesome yoga sessions on the off-white tile floor.

I have such a hard time imagining a life that isn’t this one, or what the next one will be like. 

We cried together, and I told her that I sometimes forget that the person she knows as me doesn’t extend beyond the last year and a half. I carry around all of those memories that make up my past.

Climbing up the winding roads of Mt. Tabor at sunset. Drunkenly bombing down the hill on NE 15th at 3:00 am and then flopping into bed, still sweaty from the ride. Coffee and conversation with dear friends. Sunday morning basketball. The flower farm in Corbett. That lonely night on the park bench, chain-smoking cigarettes. Sitting hungover on Avery’s front stoop, the sky blanketed in soft, gray clouds. Watching John Carpenter movies on my couch in the dark. Early morning therapy sessions. Drinking an IPA in the summer sun.

When I was living that life I would have had such a hard time imagining a different one, and I certainly never would have imagined this one.

All of those things are just stories to her, if she’s heard them at all. They’re not real places, or real people. They’re a figment — someone else’s dream painted into her mind with a description that pales in comparison to the lived experience.

He thought each memory recalled must do some violence to its origins. As in a party game. Say the word and pass it on. So be sparing. What you alter in the remembering has yet a reality, known or not.”

-Cormac McCarthy, The Road

I gave that story a life, and a stark reminder that that is a place to which I must one day return. My life has been immeasurably altered by this experience, as it will be altered by others that lay before me.

 

She made a little vice shape with her thumb and forefinger and held it up in front of her eye. “Just a little bit,” she said. Her picture of me is so small. I thought then about the path that my life will take from here. Who else will I meet? What else will I do? The trail behind me will stretch out longer than the one in front, and I will be at a loss for how to explain it, how to give it life, a voice, and make it real to them.

It makes me a little sad to think of it. I feel a bit like a ghost, floating in and out of people’s lives this way, staying just long enough to imprint a handful of experiences that will stand the test of time. Just a whisper of a memory. To some, I’ll just be that foreigner who used to live here

Certainly, to others, I will be much more than that, and they to I.

It also makes me smile at the thought of who else I might meet. Who else will I meet that will change my life beyond all recognition? Who else will impact me in a way that leaves a permanent mark on my soul, who plants a seed that will grow for the rest of my life?

 

I’m going to keep getting farther and farther away from those life-defining experiences that made me who I am now. A sword forged in forgotten fires.

The core remains. Always, it remains. Through the seasons, and the years, and the growth, and the fires, and the rain, and the wind, the tree remains standing until it doesn’t. What I am, what we are, is not so easily lost.

The seed is still there, pulsing at its heart, a beacon of light, and a promise of what is yet to come.

W.

Scraps

It’s been a long time since I have had the opportunity to just sit down and write. As a result, my notebook is full of post-it notes and folded-up index cards, hastily scribbled scraps of emotions blooming in my chest, realizations dawning on a suddenly quiet mind, and pointless ramblings given physical form with ink and paper.

Coherent narratives are overrated;

Love is the coal that makes this train roll.”

-The Black Keys, Everlasting Light

There is value in your struggle, in my struggle, in our struggle. So much value and so much beauty in that swirling maelstrom of chaos that sometimes feels so impossible, so unfair, and so pointless. Every once in a while a light shines through, someone shows us a mirror, the connections and patterns reveal themselves to us for a brief moment, and we know that not only is there something beyond this struggle and that it won’t last forever, but that the struggle itself is enriching us in ways we never could have imagined. The yin and yang swirl together, the lines blur, and we begin to question the absolute story of our lives that suffering is bad and pleasure good.

Suffering is the most human thing we can do.

Others can show us the value in things we never would have considered. The way we do things and the things we value are not the best, we only believe they are. Context matters. Value is relative. For everything we know down to our bones to be an absolute, universal truth there is someone who feels just as strongly about the opposite truth.

What would a world where people don’t value freedom be like?

Sometimes I feel like more and more of my life goes into my phone and I don’t have the willpower to pull myself back out.

We talked at lunch today about discomfort. I realized that I haven’t been allowing myself to be uncomfortable in a while. I abuse the phone, spend time with people, watch Netflix. Less introspection, less pushing the edges, less growth in some ways but maybe more in others, less patience for myself. I’m still finding those lines between healthy and unhealthy. It shifts a lot. Back and forth, side to side.

I miss the feeling of oneness.

I sat across the table from them, elbows propped up on the marred wooden blocks, three empty bowls with a little bit of broth still on the bottom sitting in front of us, listening to them talk about relationships, partners, and family. It’s such a gift, being able to talk to them, to share our stories, to know one another. I’m so grateful. I wanted to capture that moment and hold onto it forever. The way we talk to each other, the words we use.

พี่, หนู, เค้า, แก, ตัวเอง

The intimacy shows. The care for one another shows. I wish I could transmit that feeling, that image, that moment, for everyone in the world to see, to feel, and to know what love and connection can be, and how easy it is to find it if we let ourselves see it, if we tug on those strings a little.

I feel so much more at peace with the next step of my journey. I’m not totally sure how that happened, or how I got here.

Do you ever look at someone and feel like you’re really seeing them for the first time? They laugh and suddenly you can see everything they are in their face. The laugh lines, the smile, the eyes, a tilt of the head. You can see every decision they have ever made that brought them to this point in their lives. You think about every time that person has looked at you and what they have seen, about every time they have cried, how deeply they have loved. It’s almost as if they become a whole person for just a moment, the secret truths of the universe available to you for just a fraction of a second.

What causes that?

We all have evil within us. Sometimes we want to believe that the actions of others are the result of a particularly heinous or rare kind of evil. We have all the same things within us, the same potential to cause pain. We flail, we falter, and we fail to understand. Not malicious. Not evil. Just human. Let us not trick ourselves into thinking these actions are not human, lest we forget how common they are.

 We are mortals all, extravagant in our weakness.”

-Vincent Brand, Penny Dreadful

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It feels so good to be back.

It feels like putting the last puzzle piece into place.

It feels like coming home.

W.

Friendship

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I was talking to a friend recently about the relationships we have with people back home, wherever that is for us. It made me realize that I have this tendency to imagine time as kind of just frozen in place back there.

The experience I am having here is so new. I’m being challenged in ways I never anticipated or prepared for, seeing new things, meeting new people, growing, changing, hurting, and loving.

It’s important for me to try and remember as often as I can that all of these same things are happening to the people I love back in the place I once called my home. People are dying, struggling with addiction and depression, fighting hatred and oppression, loving, losing, getting together, breaking up, having children, getting married, losing jobs, starting careers, going back to school, having their hearts broken, wondering what their future is going to look like, and having life-changing experiences every day.

As I always try to remind myself when panic and anxiety start to take hold — whatever happens, the world will continue to spin;

Love is the coal that makes this train roll

The Black Keys, Everlasting Light

Navigating opposite-sex friendships in Thailand can be challenging. Things that I would consider to be absolutely devoid of romantic intent have different meanings here. It’s also really hard to tell whether or not someone is joking, whether or not they’re teasing or they mean something more than what they’re saying. The answer is usually All of the above.

People are incredibly cautious of potential misunderstandings involving opposite-sex friendships. I think a lot of this has to do with the type of super-possessive and gender-imbalanced monogamy that is so common here in Thailand. I know women here who actively avoid being alone with a man they know just in case their partner gets the wrong idea and gets upset about it (I’m sure they have other reasons, too, but this is one that has been expressly stated to me).

Since most of my friends are women, it can sometimes be challenging for me to feel as close with them as I want to be with my friends. I also have to try and understand that the way my friends here show love, affection, and care is not the same way I am used to seeing it. Everything is laden with meaning, and some of those meanings still escape my notice.

The most incredible thing about the friendships I have been lucky enough to forge here is how connected everyone feels. My group of friends here feels like a big family. Many of them have known each other for decades. They support each other, they spend so much time bonding, and they have been gracious enough to fold me into their family, in a way. This is something I have never experienced before in my life.

There’s an intimacy that feels so genuine and natural. It just exists in the background and coalesces into little moments here and there. Crowding around the table to share a meal. Laughing together. Finding ourselves all clustered together in a group even when we have no cause to be.

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I’ve had many partners since my first girlfriend all the way back in high school. Some of those relationships lasted as short as a couple of months, others as long as a few years. Through those relationships I learned how to love a partner. I have learned what I want from a relationship, how I want to feel, and how I want to make others feel.

Here, I’m learning how to love a friend. I’m learning how to share my heart with someone and love them without grasping, without over-indulging, or obsessing. It’s a struggle that I never expected to face, but it has allowed me to grow in such a beautiful way and explore new kinds of connections.

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A good conversation with a friend here will give me an emotional high that makes me feel so connected, energized, and activated. After a day or two it fades and I find myself craving more of that reassurance. You are important to me, you will be missed, and I care about you, too. I often find myself wishing I didn’t feel the need for it.

I once told one of my friends here that I feel she is so much more important to me than I am to her. I said it like it was a joke so she wouldn’t feel bad, in the same way that Thais often do, but I really do feel that way. I just want to be as important to the people here as they are to me.

I don’t think I ever will be, but I think I can accept that.

How could I be? This experience is totally different for them than it is for me. They never had to rely on me for survival, they never needed me to do anything for them, they never needed me to guide them through something difficult or hard to understand. Earlier in my service, when I felt so lonely I thought my heart might burst, my friends here saw me, reached out to me, and supported me. How could I ever repay that kindness? I’ve tried to do that for them, but I don’t think I could ever feel like I’ve balanced out the scales.

One of my closest friends here recently reflected to me how lucky we are to know each other. The odds against it are staggering. They went on to say that even though saying goodbye will be hard, we will always know in our hearts that we still share the love of friends and family.

I will keep trying as hard as I can to be present, to not grasp, to listen to the love in the background, and to accept the things that are hard to accept.

I will also try to be gentle to myself when I fail.

Fabric

The day I wrote this (in bits and pieces throughout the day, as I often do), at least three people in three separate, isolated settings asked me how much longer I was going to be here and commented about how quickly the time is going.

By the third time I just smiled and laughed softly to myself before responding. All I could think was; I am so goddamn lucky to be here.

Life isn’t something you possess. It’s something you take part in, and you witness.”

-Louis CK

Last week;

It’s supposed to be a holiday, but the government workers I spend my time with don’t usually get these days off. They spend them organizing events, going to ceremonies, and driving around to different villages. As such, I am tasked with going to a tree-planting ceremony in a nearby village. I admit to being a little grumpy about it, but I try to put on my best face and just go with it.

Before we have even left the government office, two of my counterparts are asking me if I will cancel my classes on Monday to go dance in a performance for the governor’s visit. My annoyance flares up and through my (admittedly very thin) facade of calm.

I resist. I tell them I can’t, I tell them I don’t want to cancel my class, I tell them it’s not convenient, but they won’t let up. Eventually one of them calls up the teacher at my Monday school to move my class to the morning so I can go. Oh, also we will be spending the afternoon practicing for it, so there goes the rest of my so-called holiday.

My counterpart accuses me of being childish and petulant. I think she’s right, but I also tell her I can’t accurately explain why I don’t want to do it, and leave it at that. The real reason is that I don’t like being used as a prop — I would imagine that very few people do. I know that that conversation would not lead to anything meaningful or productive, so I just drop it.

Fast forward a bit;

The weekend is over, Monday has come, and so has the dance. My annoyance has subsided and, although I still don’t like the way I was asked to participate, I appreciate having been a part of the event. We’re back at the government office and I’m sitting at my desk waiting for my ride home to be ready.

In the room with me is one of the mayor’s deputies and the public relations coordinator. In the midst of a normal, everyday conversation, the deputy asks me the same question I have had to hear almost every day for the last six months; “วิลจะกลับเมื่อไร,” “When are you going back home?” I tell him the month and he proceeds to count the remaining months on his fingers. He reaches eight and says what most people say, “ไม่ต้องกลับแล้ว,” “You don’t have to go back anymore.”

It seems odd that this would annoy me so much, but I think I get so annoyed because I don’t know how to answer these questions. “What will you do? Where will you go? Why are you leaving?” I think the annoyance covers up the fact that they’re asking me this because they care, because they’ll be sad to see me go, because they would rather that I stay.

He ends by asking me if I will cry when I leave. I say, of course I will, as I always do when people ask me this. I tell him it will be very, very hard for me to leave. After that he asks me, “จะกลับไปทำไม,” “Then why are you going back?” I can’t explain the reasons to him, partly because I don’t have the words to do it justice, and partly because I don’t rightly know the answer myself. I think about it for a moment and just respond with something like, “Sometimes we have to do things even though they are difficult to do.”

I’m not special here anymore.

This is something I have only recently realized I am struggling with. I am just a part of the fabric of everyday life. I’m not The Foreigner, I’m just Will (or Weeo, to be more accurate). I don’t need special attention, I can take care of myself (mostly), and I can solve my own problems. I think I often take for granted how strange it is that I’m here, that I’m such a fixture here. Guests and visitors will walk into the office and look at me like I’m some kind of alien, sitting behind my desk like I belong there or something. The people I see every day, my friends and coworkers, expect me to be there. I do belong there.

It sounds really selfish, but while being such a normal part of things here is a heartwarming and incredibly unique feeling, I never expected to feel so slighted by not being a priority anymore. When it rains in the morning, no one calls me to see if I need a ride. They know if I need one I’ll ask. I don’t have people texting me while I’m on the bus to ask if I made it to wherever I was going. People don’t invite me to things directly as often as they used to. They assume I know what is happening and that I will find a way to get there if it’s important to me.

They’re right. I can do those things. It’s cool to be such a seamless part of the fabric of this place. I have to admit that it also stings a little bit, and that sting is unexpected. I also realize that this is the price of independence.

One of the things that makes it sting is that I sometimes feel I’m not special until they need me to be. When they have an important visitor come, you can be damn sure they make sure I show up to take photos and impress the guest of honor with my white skin, tallness, and nationality. They don’t ask me to share my work, or talk about how it feels to be a volunteer. They ask me to show up, speak some Thai, and be white.

What I have been realizing recently, however, is that these things are often one in the same. They ask me to do these things in part because I am a farang, and having a farang working in your office is impressive for some reason. They also ask me to do it so that I can take a part in their life. These things that we hate doing, that annoy the shit out of us, they bind us to the people here. I feel honored to take part in something so beautiful, to share life with these people.

These conversations will continue to happen. People will keep asking me when I am leaving, keep telling me the time is going too quickly, keep telling me I should stay, and keep making jokes that I’m going to cry when that day inevitably rolls around. Even though it is challenging on the days when the uncertainty of the future feels like a thousand ton weight resting on my shoulders, I want to try and get used to having them, and to try to have them with grace and understanding.

The trajectory of my time here is fascinating to observe. When I first started I retreated so far into myself. I was so afraid of making mistakes, of screwing up, of doing it wrong, that I kept most of myself hidden, reaching it out once in awhile when it felt safe. After a time I started to feel more like myself, more willing to risk, to dare, to challenge. Once I finally felt like I could be myself here, I started reaching even further, trying new things, challenging things within myself that I didn’t even know were there. Now I find myself trying things that seemed beyond possibility not too long ago.

So here is us, out on the raggedy edge.”

It’s beauty and scope is horrifying and full of possibilities. Who knows where I’ll be six months from now; what kind of things will I put out there? What kind of things will I take in? What will I want?

The answers will come with time. Or not. And that’s okay, too.

The only thing I know right at this moment is that I will never be able to make the people here truly understand how deeply knowing them has impacted me. I can only hope they are able to glimpse a fraction of its magnitude before our time together comes to an end.

-w.

 

Liminal Space

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The blues seem to be going around lately. Maybe it’s just that time of year. Maybe there’s something in the air. Maybe there’s a dip on this part of the graph. 

We start to wonder what it is we have done here. We start to wonder what it will look like six months from now when we are preparing ourselves for our final goodbyes. We question, we seek, we doubt. 

An old friend who is no longer part of my life used to support me in times like these. His thoughtful presence, intent, and attention made me feel seen, loved, and free in so many ways.

There was something that he would always say to me on days like these — days when it feels like nothing is going right and I heap the lion’s share of blame on myself. It was something I needed to hear, something that still echoes in my ears in his steady, soft voice when it needs to be heard;

You’re not doing anything wrong.”

Lately I feel as if the way people see me doesn’t line up with the way I see myself, or with the way I want to make people feel. I feel confused.

I feel as if I am losing myself. This is both good and bad. In that losing there are so many things to discover, and I can begin to let go of things that don’t serve me here in the present — relics from a time long since past, but not forgotten. I’m not fighting the same battles. I’m not facing the same demons. I’m not walking the same parapets.

Sometimes I feel there is no winning with me, like I’m fighting a battle against myself. When I’m alone I want to be with others, when I’m with others I want to be alone.
This is true and it’s not. I want so badly to show myself but I am still afraid. In spite of everything I am still afraid. I’m afraid that people will see me and think I’m weak. 

But what’s wrong with weakness? Where does this aversion come from? I want to cast it off. It doesn’t belong to me. I don’t want it and I never did.

In my most satisfying fantasies no one expects anything of me, especially not strength or composure.

So where are you right now?”

I feel like the adult.

I feel tiredness wrapping itself like a cocoon around my body.

I feel a weight settling on me and I don’t have the power to shake it off anymore.

Depressed. Into the ground. Energy and motivation are fleeting.

I feel like other people need me.

I feel afraid that no one will be there for me to need, for me to crash into.

I still feel lost.

I feel like I’m emptying out.

And nothing is coming back in.

I feel not myself.

But who am I?

Is this what letting go of yourself feels like? What is in that space between the person I was and the person I will be? That’s where I am and it’s dark and lonely and scary. I am afraid I will get lost here or that I’m not strong enough to endure it.

So break. So get lost. So flounder, drown, flail.

Drown, drown
Sailors run aground
In a sea change nothing is safe
Strange waves
Push us every way
In a stolen boat we’ll float away

-Beck, Little One

สายใย

 

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The connections I feel with the people here are unlike anything I have ever felt before. I don’t know if it’s due to Thai people specifically, my perceptions of connection changing by circumstance and place, more letting in and more letting go, increased sensitivity to connection, increased appreciation for it, or all of the above. All I know is that I have never felt so fulfilled by everyday interactions before.

They told us at staging, a lifetime ago, and all throughout PST that Thailand is a high-context culture. I think I am finally starting to feel what that actually means. Not to understand it, but to feel it, at long last.

These tiny interactions, microscopic in scale, blooming into infinity. It’s so unbelievable to me that an interaction lasting all of five seconds can make me feel so much. Like an infinite glowing warmth in my chest, a river of light without source or mouth, a lightness that makes me feel as if I may just float away, as if my heart has melted into warm air to lift me up off the ground. And from such simple, every day things, too. Acts of love, acts of kindness, acts of familiar intimacy.

The purest, most gentle force in the universe — I want to know you. I want to be close to you. A drawing forth. A wanting. 

We experience it in so many different forms, from so many different people — from a friend, from a brother, sister, mother, father, from a total stranger, from a lover, from a mentor, from a teacher, from a child. The string that binds us all together laid bare for all to see, the connection obvious and stark and clear for that one moment, and lost again among the noise of life, the static, the thoughts and concerns of being.

The heat fades, but it’s still there. The string is always there even when we think we can’t feel it. It’s there behind every conversation, every sweep of the hand, every intertwining of fingers, every inhale and exhale, every head on a shoulder, every smile, every pulsing beat of our hearts, like a grand symphony of connection.

Pushing it away feels so wrong, but I don’t want to pull it in too far either, to grasp it, because it doesn’t belong to me, or to any of us. Can I let it float there in front of me without grasping it?

It is a privilege to be able to miss people, and to be missed.

I struggle with this some days, because the Thai people I know seem to be so much better at not forcing these connections in the same way that I often feel compelled to. They seem to be much calmer about missing and being missed, much more comforted in the knowledge that we will meet again at some point. That’s not to say that they don’t miss, they just seem much more at peace with it than I feel. Then again, there is undoubtedly a lot there that I never see. There is undoubtedly so much context there I have yet to feel.

I am reminded often of the different kinds of love. Some loves are flashy. Some only last for five minutes. Some are secret loves, unspoken but very much felt. Some are brand new, and bring with them all of the raw emotions that new love stirs within us. Others burn slowly. They don’t flash or create intense bursts of heat, they don’t dazzle or amaze, but we know they won’t go out easily. They will continue to burn long after we are there to stoke them.

It’s always there, whether we feel it or not. Sometimes the string feels taut, and other times it feels slack, but it’s always there.

Duality

I’ve been working on my meditation practice more lately. Something that I was introduced to through Pema Chodron’s teachings is the Tonglen practice.

I have found that this practice helps me feel more connected to the people in my life even when they’re not around, and to find my way into the heart space more easily. It has also helped me to practice letting go of attaching “good” and “bad” labels to thoughts, ideas, and emotions.

All the things that we experience bring us closer to enlightenment. There is no enlightenment without suffering. There is no lotus without the mud;

nomudnolotus1

As a Youth in Development volunteer I have very few opportunities to spend time bonding with my kids in an unstructured environment. I have often found myself envious of the fact that TCCS volunteers get to spend so much time with their students, go to the same school every day, and be a reliable presence there.

I go to five different schools every week, sometimes two different schools in one day. Spreading myself so thinly makes it hard to develop meaningful connections with my students. I don’t live near any of my schools — I have had students come to visit my house once ever in the 16 months that I have been at site. It also doesn’t help that I usually do my class at the end of the day during the free hour, after which the students and teachers scurry home, leaving little to no time for unstructured play.

The camp environment, however, is a great opportunity to build that relationship. Not only is being at the camp together a wonderful shared experience, but even the logistics, traveling together, and exploring the space provide really wonderful opportunities for connection.

The first day of the Leadership Summit when we sat down to think about and write out our expectations and hopes for the camp, I made sure to say that one of mine was strengthening my relationship with the students.

The small moments for me are always the ones that feel so important and meaningful. A shared look, an expression of care or curiosity, just showing up for one another. These are the kinds of things that made me feel closer to my students, the kinds of things I rarely have the opportunity for when we spend so little time together, and when the time we do spend together is usually goal-oriented in some way.

Riding in the car, choosing snacks at 711, joking about being car sick, a student leaning over during a session to ask me if I understand what we’re doing and then explaining it to me, hearing a student say it’s more fun if we do it together, being sought out, being asked why I came to Thailand to serve as a volunteer, riding bikes together, being taught, being included, being seen, being together.

These are the moments of intimate familiarity that mean so much to me and help me feel connected and seen.

On the last day of the camp we sat down to do our action plans. One of the facilitators put a graphic on the board with nine orange bullets that had the abbreviations for the next nine months written on them. She then asked, “How much time do you have left before the volunteers go home?”

The answer was revealed by another group of students and I just sat there wondering what my kids were thinking in that moment. Did they already know that? Did they think it would be longer or shorter? How did they feel about it?

Because all I could think about was how short that amount of time sounded, and how much it was going to hurt to leave.

Nine isn’t a big number at all. We are officially out of the double digits. Some folks’ number is even smaller. Some people are undoubtedly looking forward to that day. I, however, am not one of them. Sometimes I’m not even sure how I can begin to absorb such a Truth.

At the end of the last day we did a great activity where we expressed love and care for one another as a group. Afterwards, I made the rounds to say goodbye to everyone once I realized that my counterparts were all waiting for me to wrap it up so we could leave.

As we rode away in the van it occurred to me that these camps are like a microcosm for our whole service. At the beginning it’s kind of bumbling and unclear, you have to establish boundaries and find what works for you, establish expectations and desired outcomes. Then you build relationships and unity through struggle, solving problems, and just spending time together. Some hopes are dashed cruelly upon the sharp rocks of reality, and other new opportunities arise out of unexpected places. Hopefully you accomplish something good, though the impact won’t be obvious until much later, and at the end you say goodbye and go your separate ways once again.

One day soon we will have to say goodbye to one another without knowing when the next time we will see each other will be. It won’t be “See you soon.” There won’t be the comfort of knowing that your friends are still within reach, that you’ll see them again before too long.

That is doubly, triply true for our students and Thai friends. Meeting up with a friend in the States or abroad is one thing, but I can’t even begin to calculate when I will have the opportunity to return to Thailand again. A year? 5 years? A decade?

When I think about it this way, no amount of remaining time seems long enough. The continual fluctuation I experienced when I first came here doesn’t seem to have abated so much as it has just changed form. Some days, when I feel a really strong connection with my students or my friends, I think about extending my time here beyond the perpetually-looming COS date and it seems totally possible. Other days it sounds absolutely, “No f–king way!” crazy to me.

I think a big part of my experience here has been accepting this duality, that change is the only constant, and that there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Stability and predictability are myths. I can begin to revel in that Truth instead of fearing it.

To be like water — ever flowing, ever adapting, never stable. To be like stone — wearing away with each drop, changing the flow by the simple fact of its existence in that space, ancient yet impermanent.

-w.

Conversation

My God, It’s full of stars!”

-Dave, 2001: A Space Odyssey

One of the coolest things about being a PCV is having the opportunity to talk about ideas, thoughts, perspectives, and viewpoints with people who have never been provided the opportunity to consider such things. We are also given the opportunity to explore these same ideas from a totally different perspective than our own if we are able to listen.

I’m not talking about the classroom, either. I’m talking about everyday conversations with friends.

It’s almost as much for me as it is for them. Having to break an idea down to its component parts, look at it, translate it, and spit it back out sheds new light on it. It helps me understand it more on a fundamental level. I can see all the pieces laid bare and figure out different ways to assemble them, all the possible constructions and meanings.

I can see the essence of it more clearly;

ONE

The other day someone asked me what heartspace meant, because I had it written on the white board in my house.

I asked her, do you ever feel sad for people that you never knew, that you will never know? Do you ever feel their pain almost as if its your own? Do you ever think about people from history, from an age hundreds of years before you were born, and feel their suffering?

I told her that it’s that place where you feel connected to everything. People, trees, flowers, ants, dirt, dogs, lightning, blades of grass. Yesterday, today, tomorrow.

Maybe she understood and maybe she didn’t, but having to explain it this way shed new light on it.

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TWO

Recently, I was having a conversation with a friend about the different ways in which we view relationships.

From what I have seen, heard, and experienced myself, Thai relationships are remarkably traditional. Monogamy is the standard. Trust is hard to earn and hard to keep. Cheating is rampant, even expected. Oftentimes when I ask why someone isn’t coming to an event, or going on a trip, the response is แฟนไม่ให้ไป, which means their partner won’t let them go.

I told my friend that I believe the best thing you do for someone you love is to let them be free, to let them choose for themselves what they want. Trying to force or compel someone you care about to do something you want is the antithesis of love, in my opinion.

The analogy that I have been using for a long time is that of a butterfly alighting on your hand. If you close your hand around the butterfly to try and keep it from getting away, you’ll crush it. If it was meant to stay, it will. If it wasn’t, holding it prisoner will only prolong suffering for both of you. You cannot make it stay without destroying it, without clipping its wings and changing it into something else.

At the end of the day, it will always leave. After a month, a year, 40 years, a lifetime. Impermanence shows itself in all things.

She thought about it for a minute and then remarked that I was weird. When I asked her why, she said something like, you don’t want to compel others but it seems like you are always trying to compel yourself.

This unexpected insight stopped me in my tracks. I didn’t have a response besides, you’re absolutely right.

THREE

One day I was sitting in the car on the way to get coffee and having a conversation with my friend who was driving. We were talking about relationships. She, a gay female, was talking about some of her personal observations about common behaviors among Thai women.

She used a lot of not-very-flattering words, like งอแง (childish), งี่เง่า (foolish), and โง่ (silly). She told me that Thai women are overly sensitive. They’re prone to sulking (ขี้งอน), jealousy (ขี้หึง), and sudden changes of mood.

I didn’t agree or disagree, mostly just listened. We did agree, however, that if you have a problem with your partner, you should talk to them about it. Otherwise, even though you may feel better about it over time, the problem will likely continue to arise again and again.

As we sat having this conversation a strange feeling came over me. It was not an entirely new feeling. I experience it from time to time and it’s always kind of exhilarating yet disorienting at the same time;

Sometimes, I think about how I spend a majority of my day comfortably speaking a foreign language and it elicits the strangest sensation — an odd combination of excitement, and a strange fear at how malleable our brains are.

Less than two years ago these sounds had absolutely no meaning to me. Now, I can sometimes speak with people in a way that feels so natural, at least as far as everyday conversation goes.

It makes me wonder; what kind of things that I experience now, which make no sense to me or have no meaning, will be an essential or even totally natural part of my life in the future? What things are there that I am completely unaware of that I’m missing entirely? Or things I wouldn’t even consider as possible at all?

I don’t mean just language, either. Ideas, philosophies, worldviews, opinions, deeply-held beliefs. Anything is possible, and the implications of that realization are simultaneously wonderful and terrifying in scope.

It’s like staring out into a vast open space. Awe-inspiring yet overwhelming in its magnitude, like a mind incapable of comprehending itself.

Lost In The City

“Self-love is a good thing but self-awareness is more important. You need to once in a while go ‘Uh, I’m kind of an asshole.”

-Louis CK

I have to admit that I am a very judgemental person.

Occasionally, I attempt to comfort myself on this count with two thoughts; 1) I believe that I can and should accept people as they are, including all of those things I see and experience from them that I feel very activated by that may cause me to judge them, and 2) that I judge myself at least as fiercely as I do others.

Now that I write it out, that second one doesn’t seem all that comforting.

This is something I am constantly working on. I do not like judging others, or myself, but I do it all the time. I remember once thinking many years ago that if my friends knew some of the things I had thought about them that they would never talk to me again. I try, whenever I can, to be kind and soft with others, to realize that they are struggling too, and that there is no right or wrong way to be.

This softness, however, always fades over time. I need to be constantly reminded to be soft to others and, maybe even more importantly, to myself.

 

I recently spent some time in Bangkok. Being there always fills me with contrasting emotions, which is activating in both good and bad ways. During this trip I found myself in a particularly salty mood. In the interest of transparency and living my truth, I wanted to bare my soul a little bit here. The darker parts, the parts that I wish I didn’t have and I certainly hoped no one would ever discover. It’s all part of the journey and so I want to share all of it.

I wrote this the first day I was there;

The City

Feeling judgemental. Comparing to home. Thinking about how selfish we all are.

Listening to a bunch of people act like just physically putting their body in a place is some kind of achievement. “Look at how much money and privilege I have,” they seem to say.

And I’m such a f–king hypocrite. I’m sitting in the same restaurant they are, waiting for my ฿250 plate of pasta so who the f–k am I to judge? I console myself by saying that I’m not like them, that I’m giving back, that I am somehow comparatively less selfish than they are. What a bunch of bullsh-t.

Why do I constantly find myself doing this?

When I overhear the spoiled white girl at the adjacent table complain to her spoiled white friends who have the privilege to come and earn college degrees in a foreign country complain about having to pay ฿40 per day to travel to and from school I just want to scream “What the f–k is wrong with you?”

I want to grab her by the hand and lead her to the house of my 12 year old student who doesn’t even have electricity, whose dad wants him to drop out of school to earn more money for the household so they don’t starve. I want to take her to school and show her the kids who wear the same unwashed government-issued white shirt and navy blue shorts/dress to school every day because they can’t afford to buy a second set or their parents don’t care enough to get it for them if they’re even around at all.

The saddest part is that even if I could it wouldn’t matter. She would point at the iPhone in my pocket, the Nike’s on my feet, and the Timbuk2 bag on my back and say, “F–k you, too, buddy!”

And she would be absolutely right.

It just fills me with so much sadness to see a $60,000 Mercedes barrel down the road past houses on stilts made of rotting wood and corrugated metal, to see people piss away thousands of dollars to go and see things that most people in the world could never even dream of seeing, to step inside a home where a single month’s rent could pay a teacher’s salary at one my schools for over 3 years.

How can people live so far above others? “Earned” or not, how do they do it? How do we do it? How do I?

This is the question that plagues me as I walk around this city and see tourists, foreigner and Thai alike, indulging themselves. This is the question that burns a hole in me as I sit and listen to backpackers speak proudly of all the places they have been, as if that actually means anything.

I would be lying if I said I hadn’t ever had similar thoughts about other volunteers with regards to privilege and complaining, or if I said I had never judged myself for the same thing.

 

I thought a lot about this after I wrote it. I think about it often. So much bile. So much anger. So lacking in compassion and empathy for others. Why?

Partly because it makes me look at my own privilege, about how far above others I live, and that’s hard for me to accept.

Partly because it just feel so goddamn unfair, and unfairness is very activating for me.

I realized that perhaps the biggest part is that I feel just as lost as all of these people I judge for being so lost. Some days I still feel like I have no idea what I want or need to be happy and fear that I never will. By judging them I am also being unkind to myself.

The only difference between us is that I am full of hubris, and this idea that I am ascending to something greater, something beyond selfishness.

What a bunch of self-righteous bullsh-t.

In spite of it all, this lost feeling comes back again and again, like a hammer slamming into the side of my head, a stark reminder;

WE’RE NOT DONE YET.

There is beauty in this perpetual struggle. A big part of that beauty to me is that we share it. We are all lost together.

-w.